Curriculum for Excellence: taking stock and moving forward (part 2)

In my previous post, I discussed the issues currently facing CfE, and suggested that I would come back to ways of addressing these issues in part two. In part one, I offered an analysis at three levels – macro-, meso- and micro-levels of curricular [re]contextualisation, suggesting issues at each level that have affected the implementation of CfE. In an ideal world, these issues might be addressed by commencing with the policy framework; a possible redesign being a precursor for more constructive curriculum development in schools. However, policy runs in cycles, and at present too much rides on CfE; the label ‘excellence’ has, for example, rendered the curriculum particularly high-stakes for those responsible for its implementation, and media interest (especially the potential for criticism) probably precludes any more than tinkering at this stage. With this in mind, I intend to offer this analysis from the bottom up, starting with suggestions at the micro-level of engagement.

Paradoxically, what many consider to be a weakness of CfE is also potentially its strength in relation to its development in schools. That is, its apparent ‘vagueness’ and ‘wooliness’ (to quote teachers in our 2012 research: see is a source of flexibility and opportunity for innovative teachers and schools seeking to maximise the potential of CfE. However, this requires a better knowledge of curriculum development principles than is currently present in many schools; it requires a clear commitment to making sense of the big ideas of CfE and development of a whole-school vision for the curriculum; and it requires  a developed sense of the mechanisms (fit-for-purpose content and pedagogy) for achieving these purposes of education. In short, it requires schools to treat CfE as a process curriculum.

According to the curriculum theorist A.V. Kelly, a process curriculum is one where ‘the starting point for educational planning is not a consideration of the nature of knowledge and/or the culture to be transmitted or a statement of the ends to be achieved, whether these be economic or behavioural, but from a concern with the nature of the child and with his or her development as a human being’ (Kelly, 1999). This sounds very much like CfE to me. Developing a process curriculum requires schools to start their curriculum planning with consideration of broad educational purposes, rather than by specifying content or conducting an audit of outcomes; and it requires a clear set of processes for curriculum development, for example as follows:

1.       Sense-making. This is about development of a vision at a whole-school level. It is about working out what the big ideas mean, and what are the purposes (long and short term) of education. According to Gert Biesta (2010), educational purposes can be grouped in the following categories: qualification (i.e. the knowledge and skills that people need for citizenship, the workplace and life in general); socialisation (i.e. induction onto cultural norms and values, and learning to live with one another); and subjectification (a horrible word that refers to the process of becoming the unique human that we all have the potential to become). The Four Capacities of CfE – and I mean the statements of attributes and capabilities here, rather than the rather banal slogans – seek to articulate purposes of education. They are not perfect, but they do provide an excellent starting point for discussion and sense-making. Arguably, in many schools, this sense-making has not occurred in sufficient depth, and subsequently such schools have failed to develop a sufficiently holistic vision for CfE. This was illustrated nicely by some research published by the Borders council in late 2012 (, which suggested that only around 10% of schools had developed a clear vision, and that these schools were developing better programmes as a result.

2.       The development of fit-for-purpose practices. Clarity of purpose engenders clarity in the development of practices. These include the specification of knowledge and teaching methods, as well as questions of provision.

a.       For example, schools need to consider what sorts of knowledge need to be acquired / developed. A useful concept is the notion of powerful knowledge, developed by educationalist Michael Young (2007). Young suggests that knowledge is powerful because it is grounded in the disciplines (i.e. it is scientific or disciplinary knowledge, rather than everyday knowledge; knowledge developed over time by communities of scholars according to scientific processes). While adopting the basic notion of powerful knowledge, I would disagree with Young as to why knowledge is powerful. Instead I prefer to see knowledge as powerful because of its potential effects; knowledge is powerful in what it makes possible, what it unlocks for young people. Knowledge is powerful in that it enables social action, critical citizenship, engagement with the natural world and effective careers, etc.. Some such knowledge may be of the everyday variety (e.g. health and relationships education).  Much will be grounded in disciplines. The key point here is that knowledge is central to the curriculum. The curriculum should not be about skills elevated over knowledge (and indeed skills vs knowledge is a false dichotomy). It should, as John Dewey (a prominent exponent of the process curriculum) suggested, focus on ‘the accumulated wisdom of the ages’ (Dewey, 1907). This is not, however, the same as saying that we start our curriculum development by specifying subjects; but it does suggest that the acquisition of [powerful] knowledge is a key purpose of education, and that the selection of content should be determined by its fitness-for-purpose.

b.      Another useful distinction drawn by Young is that between reflexive and routinised acquisition of knowledge – the distinction between deep understanding and superficial learning. This is largely a question of pedagogy. It is quite clear, if one looks carefully at the attributes and capabilities of CfE, that certain sorts of pedagogy are suitable for developing these. Thus, for example, developing the ability to think independently requires schools to develop inquiry approaches to learning. Making informed decisions requires pedagogy that develops this skill in a supportive educational environment. However, there is a caveat here. In some schools, CfE is seen as a matter of implementing off-the-shelf approaches wholesale – for example adopting cooperative learning across the school. Such approaches ignore the fact that, while cooperative learning is manifestly fit for some purposes (and I am a big fan of it), its uncritical adoption may fail to meet other purposes, where other pedagogies (including transmission techniques and worksheets) might serve better. Death by cooperative learning is, I believe, every bit as unpleasant for young people as death by a thousand worksheets.

c.       I wish to dwell briefly here on issues of provision. Addressing questions of fitness-for-purpose should also be about looking at systems and procedures, thus identifying barriers and drivers which impact upon the development of the curriculum. A prominent example of where this has not tended to happen concerns the secondary school timetable. Logic would suggest that a serious attempt to implement the principles of CfE would include a serious look at the structure of the school day. One might expect longer school periods for example, to accommodate CfE pedagogy. One might expect a serious look at the ways in which knowledge is organised in schools.  Disciplines and subjects are not the same thing, and schools should be looking at alternative ways to organise disciplinary (and everyday) knowledge, especially in the pre-qualification Broad General Education phase, where fragmentation is a problem (typically S1 pupils might see 15 teachers in a week). As Elliot Eisner (2005) reminds us, ‘There is no occupation …  in which the workers must change jobs every fifty minutes, move to another location, and work under the direction of another supervisor. Yet this is precisely what we ask of adolescents, hoping, at the same time, to provide them with a coherent educational program‘. Serious attention to such matters might include the systematic development of inter-disciplinary approaches, including hybrid subjects (integrated science, social studies, etc.).

I have focused here on the micro-level – on how schools might work within the framework provided by CfE in its current form. However, we also need attention at the meso- and macro-levels. In the former case, we need to see more in the way of support for teachers and schools to engage directly with the big ideas as described above, and less of the proliferation of guidance that leads to policy mutating, as it is subject to continual reinterpretation. In the latter case, we need to see a redesign of CfE – one that places greater emphasis on both the importance of educational purposes and the processes by which these are translated into meaningful practice. Such a redesign need not be radical, as the underpinning ideas are largely sound. In terms of structure, I would like to see an end to the framework of Outcomes (the E&Os) given the detrimental effect these have on practice, as outlined in part one of this post (for an extended discussion of these issues, see And we need to think carefully about how we reduce the burden of assessment and paperwork, particularly the hamster wheel of value-added tests that has emerged in the senior phase. These are long term goals that are not going to happen overnight – in the meantime, schools need to focus on the resources and ideas that are in place, and to work constructively with these. The ideas presented above offer one way of engaging with CfE in its current form.


Biesta, G.J.J. (2010). Good education in an age of measurement: Ethics, politics, democracy. Boulder, Co: Paradigm Publishers.

Dewey, J. (1907) Waste in Education. In J. Dewey (Ed), The School and Society: being three lectures by John Dewey supplemented by a statement of the University Elementary School. Available online at:

Eisner, E. (2005). Reimagining Schools. London: Routledge.

Kelly, A. V. (1999). The Curriculum: Theory and Practice, 4th edition (London: Sage).

Young, M. (2007). Bringing Knowledge Back In: From social constructivism to social realism in the sociology of education (London: Routledge).

Curriculum for Excellence: taking stock and moving forward (part 1)

Curriculum for Excellence was widely welcomed on its inception in 2004. Teachers gave a thumbs-up to its avowed intention to declutter the curriculum and greatly reduce the spectre of assessment-driven learning. Academics welcomed its openness, and apparent [re]turn to trusting teachers as professional curriculum developers. Overseas, CfE was widely seen as a remarkable departure from the sorts of technicist, prescriptive curriculum that had blighted schools for nigh on two decades.

Today we seem to stand in a different place. My daily Twitter feed and media stories speak a very different story: widespread disillusionment, even amongst many of those teachers who have been steadfast supporters of CfE; a widespread view amongst secondary teachers that the introduction of new, CfE-ready qualifications has been botched; and many teachers complaining about an increase in bureaucracy associated largely with the demands of assessment (something acknowledged by the government – see and a concomitant intensification of workload.  So has it gone wrong? Are we, as one teacher put it on Twitter, stuck in “the next reincarnation [of] 5-14 – also heralded at the time, then dumped”? If so, then how has it gone wrong? And more important, how do we learn from the lessons of this curriculum when we address the next wave of national curriculum reform. This post deals with the first set of questions, focusing on the issues that have affected the smooth enactment of CfE. I will return to the second set of questions – how we address these issues – in a future post in the next week or two.

It is helpful here to attempt to disentangle the multi-layered complexity of curriculum development as CfE is translated from policy to practice. I will therefore make my comments according to three layers of curricular contextualisation: macro (i.e. issues relating to high level policy); meso (i.e. issues related to the [re]interpretation of such policy by government and local agencies; and micro (i.e. issues relating to the enactment of policy within schools). Of course space precludes a detailed analysis so the following consists of headlines only, with links to applicable literature where relevant.


In 2010, Walter Humes and I published a paper titled The Development of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence: amnesia and déjà vu (see This article outlines, drawing up some classical curriculum theory, some major structural issues that have, I believe, led to some quite predictable outcomes in terms of how local authorities and schools have approached school-based curriculum development. Put briefly, our argument is that CfE sought to combine at least two quite different and largely incompatible curriculum models. On the one hand, the Four Capacities (the attributes and capabilities rather than the slogans) represent some comprehensive and entirely useful curricular aims, which might act as a starting point for a process curriculum approach, deriving content and methods according to fitness for purpose. I will say more about this approach in my follow-up post, as I believe that it offers considerable potential to fix the current problems of CfE. On the other hand, the decision to structure learning around outcomes, set out as linear levels, is indicative of a different curriculum model, and a quite different starting point for curriculum planning. I believe that there have been two important consequences of this fundamental tension in the CfE model:

  1. A lack of clear specification of curriculum development processes, starting with the overarching principles set out under the headings of the Four Capacities, has led in many schools to an audit approach to the curriculum. This in turn has led to an incremental and piecemeal approach to implementation in many schools, resulting in superficial, first order changes and, often, an intensification of workload as one initiative is piled on top of another (for an extended discussion of these issues see
  2.  Another direct corollary of the adoption of the outcomes model is the tendency of outcomes to be treated as assessment standards. BTC5 is replete with references to the E&Os as standards, for example: “In Curriculum for Excellence, the standards expected for progression are indicated within the experiences and outcomes at each level” (p13) and “…assessment tasks and activities provide learners with fair and valid opportunities to meet the standards.” (p36). BTC5 defines a standards as “something against which we measure performance” (p11). Given the sheer number of such standards, it is not surprising that assessment has come to dominate CfE in much the same way that it dominated 5-14.


The above issues play out in terms of the meso-level processes through which the high-level curricular documents are recontextualised as guidance for schools. I would argue that much of the guidance has not clearly articulated systematic processes for curriculum development, reflecting a lack of capacity for such development and a lack of grounding in applicable curriculum development literature. A further problem is the tendency for successive [re]interpretation of the big ideas of the curriculum over time, leading to practices that, in many cases, are at odds with the original intentions enshrined in the 2004 documents. Again assessment provides a telling example. The 2004 documentation referred extensively to the need for assessment to support the principles of the curriculum. As late as 2007, the cover paper for the draft E&Os stated that they were expressly not for assessment – they “are not designed as assessment criteria in their own right” (CfE overarching cover paper, 2007). And yet, by 2010 the language had shifted markedly, as illustrated by the extracts quoted from BTC5 above. Under such circumstances, it does not take a great deal of imagination to see how the current bureaucratic overload has developed, exacerbated by a continued emphasis in Scotland on accountability through output regulation (see


An evaluation of the very similar New Zealand Curriculum Framework (see suggested that a major reason for the early success of the new curriculum lay in the fact that policy had shifted into line with the constructivist views about education held by many teachers. This is manifestly not the case in Scotland, where transmissionist views about education (in terms of both content and pedagogy) are more common, and arguably at odds with the implicit constructivist thrust of the curriculum (another issue here is that aspects of this constructivism have never been made explicit – e.g. see Our Highland research suggested that many teachers welcomed the new curriculum in principle (we call this first order engagement), but that there had been far less second order engagement, relating to how CfE fits with teachers’ implicit theories of knowledge and learning and thorough understandings of the underpinning ideas of the curriculum (see  for an extended discussion of this issue). This lack of fit has been exacerbated by the lack of substantive sense-making opportunities for teachers, due largely to poor resourcing, and the lack of clear processes for engagement (as discussed above).

Where next?

The above discussion might be read as a savage criticism of CfE. It should not be. I fundamentally endorse the general direction of the curriculum, even if I am critical of aspects of the implementation model. I wholeheartedly welcome many of the changes to Scottish schooling that have accompanied CfE. These include a move to more dialogic approaches to learning, including group work, and an increased tendency for teachers to have conversations about learning. There is much to commend CfE, and the conversation we should be having relates to how it might realise its potential. The key challenge lies in how we differently engage Scotland’s highly professional teaching workforce in an educational initiative that should be a major opportunity for all – teachers, young people and the population in general. I will expand on this issue in part two of this post.